George Marshall after the American Century

George Marshall after the American Century

The pragmatic engagement that Marshall believed in required the United States to know its limits but also to honor its values whenever possible.

George Marshall, middle, at Harvard to receive an honorary degree in 1947 (U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

George Marshall: Defender of the American Republic
By David L. Roll
Dutton Caliber, 2019, 704 pp.


On June 5, 1947, George Marshall received an honorary degree from Harvard University. In his citation, Harvard president James B. Conant described Marshall as “An American to whom Freedom owes an enduring debt of gratitude, a soldier and statesman whose ability and character brook only one comparison in the history of this nation”—George Washington.

In comparing Marshall to Washington, Conant was recognizing Marshall’s military leadership as Army Chief of Staff during the Second World War and his crucial role in allied wartime conferences. But nobody at Harvard’s commencement yet realized the equally decisive role that Marshall, whom President Harry Truman had appointed secretary of state five months earlier, would play in the rebuilding of Europe over the next two years.

Under the Marshall Plan, foreign aid was not charity but an investment in the future, the equivalent of the New Deal on an international scale. The Marshall Plan aimed to end the rivalries that for centuries had kept the nations of Western Europe at each other’s throats and integrate Germany into the European community by avoiding the demand for reparations that had crippled Germany at the end of the First World War and helped pave the way for the rise of Hitler. The pragmatic engagement at the heart of the Marshall Plan provided the basis for U.S. foreign policy for decades to come; it also allowed the United States to counter the influence of the Soviet Union and communist parties in the Western Europe in the 1940s. Foreign aid, as Marshall conceived it, secured a permanent U.S. role in world affairs that had not been possible before.

In his new biography, George Marshall: Defender of the Republic, David L. Roll, a lawyer and journalist who previously wrote a biography of President Roosevelt’s closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, reminds us of how strategically farsighted Marshall’s achievements were and what a dramatic contrast they provide to the current moment, when U.S. foreign policy zigzags back and forth in response to the whims of President Trump.

Roll is the latest in a long line of Marshall biographers. The definitive biography remains that of the Army’s official biographer, Forrest C. Pogue, who from 1963 to 1987 produced a four-volume study. But for anyone who wants a readable, single-volume work, Roll’s book is now the go-to study. Despite his admiration of Marshall, Roll is deeply aware of Marshall’s flaws and makes no effort to paper over them. He points out that Marshall opposed President Harry Truman’s immediate recognition of Israel in 1948, and that Marshall did not deal with racial segregation in the Army, arguing instead that desegregation “would inevitably have a highly destructive effect on morale—meaning military efficiency.”

When it comes to the part of Marshall’s legacy that is of most interest today—his stint as secretary of state—Roll is equally balanced. He regards the Marshall Plan as a geostrategic accomplishment comparable to the Monroe Doctrine or the Louisiana Purchase but argues that Marshall benefited from favoring historical tides. In its first fiscal year the Marshall Plan took up 10 percent of the entire U.S. federal budget; at its completion the State Department put the cost of the Marshall Plan at $80 for every person in the United States. Only a country with an economy as dominant as the United States’ was at the end of the Second World War could have afforded and risked such a massive and unprecedented aid plan.

Roll also emphasizes how Marshall benefited from a period of bipartisanship in U.S. foreign affairs: political leadership was united against the Soviet Union. One of the heroes of Roll’s book is Michigan’s Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee abandoned his earlier isolationism to become a staunch defender of the Marshall Plan and a key voice in fighting back efforts, including those within the right wing of his party, to underfund it.

In his account of the political and economic conditions that made the Marshall Plan possible, Roll sometimes underestimates Marshall’s eloquence in defending his rebuilding plan. While often terse in his dealings with reporters, Marshall demonstrated his rhetorical powers when the occasion demanded it. His Harvard speech about what became the Marshall Plan makes an extraordinary case for the United States to play a key role in international affairs while simultaneously remaining respectful of other nations. Marshall argued that by 1947 the time had come for the United States “to face up to the vast responsibilities which history has clearly placed upon our country.” “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace,” Marshall told his audience. Yet in the same breath he insisted, “It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for our Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically.”

“It was like a life-line to sinking men,” Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, declared on hearing Marshall’s speech as it was broadcast in England. “It seemed to bring hope where there was none. The generosity of it was beyond belief.” That sort of generosity is a far cry from more recent U.S. foreign policy, and there are many signs of nostalgia for an era of U.S. supremacy and leadership that show no signs of coming back. Two recent books, George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century and Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, put the present moment in perspective by telling the stories of gifted diplomats who nevertheless failed to achieve their goals when they served under President Barack Obama. Holbrooke did not get the diplomatic or military settlement he was after in Afghanistan; Power was forced to watch while Obama backed off from his threat to bomb Pentagon-selected targets in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a chemical attack on civilians living in an opposition-held suburb.

Would Holbrooke and Power have had greater success during the Obama years if they were working in a State Department headed by George Marshall rather than Hillary Clinton? Such counterfactual imagining only makes sense if we put together all the other advantages, including a monopoly on atomic weapons, that the United States had at its disposal during the immediate postwar period.

Marshall’s legacy reflects the power the United States held during the Roosevelt and Truman years. But it is a mistake to think that it has no relevance today. Policies of pragmatic engagement can still work for a United States whose relative global power has diminished. Marshall didn’t believe in shows of force simply because one possessed the capacity for them. In 1951, as secretary of defense, he approved of the firing of General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, when MacArthur wanted to expand the Korean War and risk all-out confrontation with China. For Marshall, it was far better for the United States to accept a stalemate in Korea than compound a war that could not end with a meaningful victory. It’s equally hard to imagine Marshall favoring the Iraq War or abandoning Kurds in Syria, as President Trump has done. The pragmatic engagement that Marshall believed in required the United States to know its limits but also to honor its values whenever possible.

Nicolaus Mills is the author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower and a Dissent editorial board member.